The role of libraries in the academic community is changing. While certain services and goals remain unchanged, such as maintaining a collection — physical or otherwise — of up-to-date information resources and providing reference/research services to patrons, the changing nature of information access and use that is spurred on by the lightning-pace of computer and technological development has inspired libraries to reconsider the ways in which they facilitate and promote tech-based innovation. The physical environment of the library, amid all the changing dimensions of service and access, has emerged as a prime environment for facilitating tech-based innovation.
The Gelman Library at George Washington University here in DC has made some amazing changes to their library environment and serves as a prime example of how libraries can adapt to meet the tech-oriented needs of their users. One of the first things that you notice upon entering the Gelman is the space-agey furniture that fills the common areas. Bench seats that join up at odd angles, broken up by wooden armrests complete with USB and 110-volt jacks? Angular bar-high counters? While they may off-put the viewer initially, Debbie Bezanson, the Associate University Librarian for Research and Library Services, informed me that the benches were selected because they allowed for public seating that did not create an intimidating environment in which you must encounter strangers (think ‘by yourself together’). And the counters allow for spontaneous collaboration with a low threshold of use. And, of course, the centrality of computers to information usage is enabled by the access to electricity at every turn.
Collaboration is a key feature of much of the institutional developments at the Gelman. Their new “dog-bone” computer desks allow for both individual use (half walls, computers that don’t entirely face each other) and group use (shared work surfaces, extra chairs that can be brought to the desks). Additionally, private meeting rooms can be reserved that feature meeting tables and large, wall-mounted monitors that can be easily hooked up to user computers. From these developments, we can see how libraries are changing to meet new user demands. Libraries are no longer repositories of books that can be accessed for quiet consideration; they are learning environments in which collaborative group work is allowed to flourish through discussion and shared access to technology.
The new age of tech-enabled libraries is not just about collaboration; it is also about access to a variety of software. By promoting access and usage of new software, libraries enable users to access and analyze data in novel ways that were previously prohibited due to cost or accessibility. The new software lab features a collection of Mac Pros with such software as Adobe Creative Suite, Camtasia, Audacity, MatLab, MS Office Suite, SAS, SPSS, and more. Additionally, the lab provides training and help for all of these applications via the Lynda.com tutorial and training site.
Lastly, by embracing brand new technologies, the library can become a hot bed of cutting-edge academic research. The Gelman’s data visualization center provides an audio visual center — complete with surround sound — that features a fascinating twist: a three-dimensional projector and document scanner. While 3D may be regarded as gimmicky (hooray $20 tickets for ‘Avatar 3D’!), it presents new ground for visualization of digital surrogates. Think of what can be done with schematics and molecular models that can be viewed in true 3D. What about digitized manuscripts? An entirely new haptic dimension opens up so that images are no longer static, flat representations.
While the core goals of a library — in their most abstract sense — remain unchanged by new waves of technology, the ways in which the library as a space is used must adapt to the evolving world of information use and user need. The Gelman Library is a great case study of ways that the library environment can change to meet growing needs.
Interesting articles on 3D visualization of manuscripts: